From Liberty Street: Surprise

John Turner

It's not often that a Sunday supplement contains much other than fluff. So I was startled to find in this week's Parade an article by Wilton Sekzer, a former New York City policeman -- as told to Eugene Jarecki --  so packed with meaning  volumes could be spent deciphering it. Mr. Sekzer's son, a bond broker, was killed on September 11, 2001. He worked in Tower One of the Twin Towers.

His son's death sent Mr. Sekzer into furies of rage. He wanted revenge. He wanted somebody to pay for killing his boy. There was nothing surprising in that. It's a common human emotion. Yet, in explaining what he did about it, and why, Sekzer reveals mental attributes that ought to seize us by the throat and shake us awake.

When he heard President Bush begin to talk about invading Iraq, Sekzer conceived the idea that his son would be honored by having a bomb named after him. The father began to write letters and he finally got a positive response. On a bomb to be dropped on the Iraqis on April 1, 2003, a Marine air division inscribed this sentiment: "In loving memory of Jason M. Sekzer." Think of it: "In loving memory!" One hears, inevitably, the refrain from a popular song: "What's love got to do with it?"

If the article had stopped there it would be merely one more report of the sort of pathological patriotism that's washing over us this weekend. But it didn't stop there.

Some months later, on television, Sekzer heard President Bush admit that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on the world trade center. Here's how he describes his reaction:

I almost jumped out of my chair. I said, "What in hell is he talking about? What the hell
did we go in there for? If Saddam didn't have anything to do with 9/11, then why did we
go in there?"

Here was a man whose beloved son had been slaughtered in one of the most highly publicized events of international conflict and he didn't know that the nation our armed forces had invaded had nothing to do with the attack. Anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the foreign policy of our government had known that for years. But Mr. Sekzer hadn't heard of it until the president had been forced into a confession. How could that be?

Sekzer offers this explanation:

I'm from the old school. Certain people walk on water. The President of the United States
is one of them. It's a terrible thing if someone like me (italics added) can't trust his President.

Earlier in the piece Sekzer had said, "I am a retired New York City cop. I mean, who am I? I'm a nobody."

In short, Mr. Sekzer was a respectable man who had filled a responsible position. He was a citizen of the United States. Yet, in his conception of himself he had no right to question the foreign policy of his government. All he could do was to respond to presidential guidance as though the president was a man who could walk on water. And why did Sekzer believe these things about himself and about the president?

Because the "old school" had taught him so. It would take extensive analysis to unearth the origin and constitution of this old school. But one thing we can say about it immediately, and without doubt: It's a hell of a bad educational institution.

Sekzer has now disenrolled from the old school and begun to learn something. We can congratulate him for that. But it's horrible that he had to lose his son to do it.

The horror leaves the rest of us with the question of whether we can continue to tolerate and respect the products of the old school. Because they play by the rules and show up for work everyday on time, the media tell us incessantly that they're the backbone of America. And politicians -- at least in public -- praise them to the skies.

The answer to the question of toleration is fairly simple. The old school graduates can continue to function as our salt of the earth only if we're content to be ruled by a small minority who acquire power by raking in gobs of money. If they decide, now and then, to sacrifice a few hundred, or a few thousand, or a few million of people like Mr. Sekzer's son for reasons they can't be bothered to explain to the rest of us, we have no right to complain. After all, they walk on water, at least in the catechism of the old school. (I'm not saying the people who died on September 11th were directly and consciously sacrificed. The reason for their deaths will have to be worked out by historical debate over decades. But I am saying that most of the people who have died violently in Iraq, both Americans and Iraqis, since March of 2003, had their lives spent by people who didn't think they needed to tell the truth about their own motives).

Mr. Sekzer seems no longer willing to give up his rights of participation and complaint. We can hope millions will join him as the walls of the old school crumble to putrid dust. And we can thank an unlikely source -- Parade -- for bringing us his story.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 11, 2006